Congratulations to all of the candidates who ran for office this year. Your candidacies, regardless of your political party or the level of office for which you campaigned, represented powerful examples of democracy, public service and the healthy competition of ideas. For those of you who were victorious, the real work now begins.
Our nation faces an unprecedented addiction and mental health crisis, both of which continue to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, related economic stress and social unrest. Our elected officials need to be fully aware of these problems and focus on solutions, which we know can have a profound impact on the wellbeing of individuals, families, communities and the nation as a whole.
Drug overdoses have surged since the pandemic began. There was an 18 percent jump nationally in March, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May, according to Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program. An analysis of state and local health data through June found that drug deaths are up 13 percent over last year’s record number. Despite good efforts in recent years, the opioid epidemic continues to worsen. More than 40 states have seen an increase in opioid-related deaths. Meanwhile, alcohol use has also risen sharply during the pandemic, with heavy drinking among women up 41 percent, according to the Rand Corporation.
The CDC’s latest survey data indicate mental health issues, substance use and suicidal ideation have all escalated, with 41 percent of U.S. adults reporting such struggles. The related costs could eventually total $1.6 trillion, according to a new estimate published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Increasingly, voters are electing to expand access to marijuana and other substances through legalization and decriminalization efforts, which will have public health consequences. At the same time, help for substance use disorders is getting harder to find, and access to existing treatment options is limited. More than 12 million Americans have lost employer-sponsored health insurance coverage, and financial and other strains have caused many addiction care facilities, recovery homes and hospital-based addiction-treatment departments to close or shut down programs.
Elected officials at all levels need to bring more awareness to this growing crisis. As the nation’s leading nonprofit addiction treatment provider, Hazelden Betty Ford is advocating for any new pandemic relief package this year to include $38.5 billion in crisis funding, a request supported by a broad bicameral group of current Members of Congress, and for the Coronavirus Mental Health and Addiction Assistance Act. Congress should also make sure any new round of Paycheck Protection Program funding is available to all nonprofits performing essential services, regardless of size, and should also pass the Work Now Act.
The new Congress should be focused on investments in integrated behavioral health, including funding for innovations such as telemedicine, and the elimination of discriminatory barriers such as face to face prescribing requirements and antiquated restrictions on payments for medically necessary care. Above all, Congress must work toward ensuring every American, regardless of geography, ethnicity, gender identity or socioeconomic status, has access to the full continuum of prevention, treatment and recovery resources they and their families need.
These are unprecedented times. But the challenges related to substance use and mental health issues present a unique opportunity to focus on what matters most—our collective wellbeing. In the field of behavioral health care, we’re expanding telehealth; moving toward precision medicine and more personalized care; integrating evidence-based practices into effective new, comprehensive approaches; and innovating in numerous other ways. We will continue to improve our efforts to lead and bring about change.
But we cannot do this alone. State, local and federal elected officials should all be talking about and acting on these issues affecting millions of voters. Together, there is great opportunity, promise and hope to be realized – at a time when we need just that.
Nick Motu serves as vice president and chief external affairs officer for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.